If West Ham are gradually moving on up then Bournemouth may be regressing to their mean. Gary O’Neil ended the game wagging his fingers in the direction of the referee, David Coote, and repeatedly railed against the decisions of VAR Mike Dean but the greater Premier League experience and squad depth had told.
The VAR controversy this time was over Thilo Kehrer’s handball in the buildup to Kurt Zouma’s opening goal and a handball by Jordan Zemura that led to Saïd Benrahma’s late, decisive penalty. Bournemouth had also escaped what looked a plum red card for Jefferson Lerma’s high lunge on Gianluca Scamacca.
“Since I’ve been here there’s been 10 serious VAR checks and none have gone our way,” said O’Neil, speaking like an embittered old hand rather than someone eight games into his fledgling managerial career. Lerma’s crimes went unmentioned and a tenure as interim manager that has taken in three British prime ministers and two monarchs is entering its first slump after a second successive defeat. “It’s going to be tough for a newly promoted team in the Premier League against good opposition,” he admitted.
Defeat at the London Stadium, where West Ham rained in 20 shots against five faced by Lukasz Fabianski came at the cost of injuries to key striker Dominic Solanke and first-choice goalkeeper Neto. “Solanke is a huge player for us and we have to go without him,” said O’Neil. Solanke left the stadium in a protective boot. The Premier League’s smallest, perhaps least distinguished, squad have three matches to see out until a well-earned World Cup break.
“I’ve not seen any of the incidents,” said David Moyes. “But our performance merited better goals than what we scored. We definitely deserved to win the game.”
His team retain their useful habit of digging out victory when pressure is coming down. They had kicked off in 17th but climbed to the comfort of 10th after weekend wins for Leicester and Aston Villa had been unhelpful for a team 12 points worse off than this stage last season. The threat of a relegation battle has been offset by an October in which only Liverpool have beaten West Ham in five matches. This was a third win in that run of games.
Until the later stages, when O’Neil said his team “had West Ham camped in”, Bournemouth sat deep and in numbers, as might be expected of an outfit whose pre-match average of 7.8 shots per game represented an all-time Premier League low. And yet Fabianski was the first goalkeeper called into action, asked to smother a poked effort from Solanke. Still, neither team looked especially potent; West Ham had scored only two previous first-half league goals all season. Flynn Downes’s aggression and runs from deep in support of Scamacca at centre-forward were the most enterprising first-half feature. The midfielder’s chance to score a first West Ham goal came from Ben Johnson’s cross but the shot was blocked.
“Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek have had slows starts and are starting to find their feet and we are trying to bring in new players,” said Moyes. “Now our league performances have started to improve and we are chasing down the teams above us in the league.”
When Neto pulled up with a muscle injury the Brazilian could only last until half-time and was replaced by the Republic of Ireland’s Mark Travers. Perhaps the visitors’ best chance came after Soucek, having failed to look up, inadvertently played in Solanke. It was to prove fateful. The striker was clattered by Kehrer as he shot and limped off to be replaced by the gigantic – and effective – Kieffer Moore. That immediately preceded West Ham’s controversial opener. Following Jarrod Bowen’s corner, Zouma nodded in and while Kehrer’s volleyball-like layup looked clear and obvious, the VAR waved the goal through.
“It’s a handball 100 times over 100,” raged O’Neil. “I thought it was a terrible decision.” The explanation given was that Kehrer’s intervention had been neither deliberate nor directly preceded the goal; the ball had come off a Bournemouth head to Zouma.
Then came Lerma’s lunge on Scamacca, almost knee-high. That was deemed yellow rather than red, the Colombian very lucky that Scamacca played on rather than took to the floor.
Moyes brought on Michail Antonio’s bustle to occupy Bournemouth’s defence but he struggled to hold the ball up. That invited Bournemouth on. The aerial power of Philip Billing and Moore was at the fore of the attempted fightback, only for the VAR to intervene again. Zemura, on as substitute, and sliding off-field, could not get out of the way of Vladimir Coufal’s cross. “Unlucky,” said O’Neil. “His hand was on its way back down.”
Penalty given, Benrahma slotted home and West Ham’s path to mid-table had been plotted. It is Bournemouth, for all O’Neil’s sense of injustice, who must start to look downwards.